KENTUCKY — Few people devote much thought to their kidneys unless their doctor advises them they are having kidney troubles.

But kidneys perform essential functions in the human body, filtering water and waste out of blood and urine while also helping to control blood pressure. When operating correctly, kidneys can go a long way toward ensuring a healthy life. But when kidneys are compromised, the results can be very harmful to human health.

Kidney disease is no small cause for concern, as the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases notes that more than 20 million Americans may have kidney disease, with millions more being at risk. Kidney disease may be even more problematic in Canada, where the Kidney Foundation of Canada reports that one in 10 Canadians has kidney disease.

Though family history is one risk factor for kidney disease, it's not just genetics that put people at risk. People with diabetes, high blood pressure and/or cardiovascular disease are also at risk of developing kidney disease, which develops gradually and does not often produce physical symptoms until it has reached an advanced stage. Because people may not detect symptoms of kidney disease until it reaches an advanced stage, the NIDDK recommends people schedule routine blood tests to check their glomerular filtration rate, or GFR, which checks to see how well kidneys are filtering. The NIDDK also notes the importance of routine urine tests, which check for protein in urine. The presence of the protein albumin in urine indicates kidney damage.

In addition to routine screenings, people can take the following steps to maintain healthy kidneys so they can live long, healthy and active lives.

Maintain a healthy blood pressure. A healthy blood pressure can delay or prevent the onset of kidney disease. The American Heart Association advises that a normal healthy blood pressure is a systolic number (the top number) less than 120 and a diastolic number (the bottom number) less than 80. The systolic number measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats, while the diastolic number measures the pressure in the arteries between heartbeats. Have your blood pressure measured by your physician on each visit (and no less than once per year), and speak with him or her about ways to lower your blood pressure if it is high or if your blood pressure falls in the prehypertension range (120-139 over 80-89), which means you are at risk of developing high blood pressure.

Reduce sodium consumption. One simple way to protect your kidneys is to consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day. Though sodium serves some essential functions in the body, helping it to regulate blood pressure among other things, people with kidney disease cannot eliminate excess sodium and fluid from their bodies. The resulting buildup in the tissues and bloodstream can contribute to high blood pressure.

Limit alcohol intake. The NIDDK advises that limiting alcohol intake can help to keep kidneys healthy and operating at full strength. Alcohol impacts the body in various ways, and kidneys are not immune to the effects of alcohol. Alcohol can cause changes in the kidneys that compromise their ability to filter blood. Alcohol also can affect the ability of kidneys to maintain the right amount of water in the body. That's because alcohol consumed in excess dehydrates the body, making it harder for cells and organs, including the kidneys, to function normally. Speak with your physician about your alcohol consumption and what is considered healthy for someone in your situation.

Consume a kidney-friendly diet. The right diet also can help people maintain healthy kidneys. A diet that includes kidney-friendly foods can prevent the buildup of waste in the kidneys while also helping people maintain healthy blood pressures. The National Kidney Foundation notes that foods such as apples, blueberries, fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, and kale are just a few kidney-friendly foods.

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